ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The University of Michigan is used to hosting tailgaters for Wolverines football games every year, but the Michigan Stadium grounds usually lie dormant on New Year's Day. So it was quite a scene to see the area surrounding the stadium suddenly flooded with countless hockey fans who packed up the RV, set up the grill and, in some cases, started a spirited game of floor hockey.
Clearly, it was the day of the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, and the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs were just hours away from facing off.
"We have the bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers, we're going to do some nice burgers and we have lots of beer," said Windsor native Sarah Kilbourne, a Detroit Lions season ticket holder who is used to spending the day tailgating. "When we're doing the Lions, we change [the menu] week by week. This week we figured let's make it easy. We did burgers, hot dogs, keep it simple."
Kilbourne was part of a spirited contingency of tailgaters preparing for the game at Ann Arbor Golf Club up the street from the Big House. She regularly travels to sporting events in Michigan with a group of friends that is hard to miss. They usually arrive in a 25-year-old converted school bus emblazoned with images of the Lions and Maple Leafs. The bus was discovered abandoned in a farm in nearby Strathroy, Ontario, and converted to comfortably fit 14 people, although Kilbourne admits they occasionally try to squeeze more people in.
"We've been known to set up lawn chairs in the back and squish a few extra people in," Kilbourne laughed.
Up the street at Pioneer High School, the tailgating was in full swing prior to the Winter Classic. Massive RVs were hosting pregame festivities attended by dozens of guests. One of the biggest RVs in the high school parking lot had roughly 50 people eating, drinking and trying to stay warm.
"We rented it for this. My hubby is working the grill," said Ann Arbor native Natalie Ceccolini, who was Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard's billet when he played for the United States National Team Development Program. "It's been awesome. We're having a blast. We've got a little rivalry going on with the Maple Leaf guys. Very friendly, we've been chanting back and forth."
Ceccolini didn't just rent the sprawling vehicle. Like many other fans gearing up for the big game, she set up an impressive menu as well. With friends and family enjoying the festivities, Ceccolini was offering bratwurst and Italian sausage along with clam chowder, white bean vegetarian chili and crème brule French toast. For those looking for a warm drink, she had hot cider and hot chocolate.
"For the Michigan [football] games, usually I just show up with my beer," Ceccolini said. "This is the first time I had to plan it all."
More than anything, the tailgating scene outside Michigan Stadium was a unique opportunity for hockey fans to come together before attending one of the marquee spectacles in sports. Of course, the friendly Detroit-Toronto rivalry only adds to the atmosphere.
"There are constant battles. Since we've been here, everyone is just having a good time. There's some bantering going back and forth, but that's it," said Chris Adams, who came to Ann Arbor from Windsor with Kilbourne. "We met our tailgate neighbors. They borrowed our snow shovel. We're all here for the same reason, to have a good time. It's all about having a good time."